Greek media and independent journalism under austerity – Open Democracy

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The study on Media Policy and Independent
Journalism in Greece
 I co-authored for the Open Society Foundations in 2014-15 identified the most urgent
problems facing media policy in Greece
and how they affect independent journalism. The study was based on desktop
research, literature review of sources in English and Greek, as well as a set
of in-depth interviews with relevant actors, conducted in Athens in November 2014.

The main
findings were that the country’s widespread patronage system has negatively
impacted the press and silenced the voices of independent and investigative
journalists. The market is controlled by a few powerful interests who dominate
the national discussion through their newspapers, television stations, and
online outlets, stifling the influence of voices and narratives outside the
establishment and exerting strict control over independent journalists. The
closure of Greece’s
public broadcaster Hellenic Radio Television (ERT) in 2013 by the then
Conservative-Socialist coalition government substantially damaged pluralism in
the domestic media landscape. At the same time, the ongoing economic crisis and
the imposition of austerity measures has drastically reduced the income of
private media outlets, forcing many journalists to face layoffs or vulnerable
work conditions.

Historically, the Greek state has intervened in all
aspects of economic and social life, including the media field. It has acted as
censor (during the dictatorship from 1967-1974), owner (of public television
and radio) and subsidiser of newspapers and electronic media. The cultivation
of close relations between the press and political power, with public
advertising and public subsidies being one of the main sources of income for
the press, has contributed to the entrenchment of a journalistic culture
cautious about criticising the government of the day.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, deregulation has increased the
viewing choices for audiences in Greece, but the private channels
mainly respond to market preferences (i.e. advertisers and sponsors) and
struggle to come up with a pluralistic output that would benefit citizens.
Eventually, what prevails in commercial channels’ daily programming is mainly
bland entertainment, rather than programmes tailored for culture, education and
the arts. The main target audience of the commercial TV networks is the wealthy
middle class and therefore programming is tailored-made to satisfy their needs
and preferences. As a result, provision for the minorities or special interest
groups is also limited.

At the same time, the legal and regulatory framework has
contributed to concentration of ownership of press, television and radio
outlets. As a result, the market has been dominated by a handful of powerful
newspaper interests, which have expanded into audiovisual and online media. In 2013-2014, the saturated audiovisual market
comprised about 130 private television channels (among which the five most
important national channels in terms of market share and advertising revenue
were MEGA Channel, ANT1, ALPHA, STAR Channel, and SKAI TV), and more than 1,000
private radio stations with negligible market shares.  

The independent regulatory authorities, notably the National Council for Radio and TV, have
functioned superficially and ambivalently and have allowed the establishment of
a media market functioning without clear and sound entrepreneurial criteria:
all private channels operate with temporary rather than permanent licenses,
granted through a formal competition process, and most of them are in serious
debts dues to loans provided with inadequate collateral.

This patronage system has acquired pretty
wide and complex dimensions after the establishment of the private TV and radio
market, whose owners have been entrepreneurs also active in key sectors of the
economy, notably in public infrastructure and procurement projects. Media organisations have thus been implicated in a complex
intertwining of political and economic interests, often termed Diaploki.

The fiscal crisis and austerity period

The contours of intertwining interests have
become more pronounced under the fiscal crisis; the so-called ‘triangle of
power’, which involves the political system, economic interests (including
increasingly the banking system) and media corporations, has been strengthened
through the development of tighter bonds of complicity. Mainstream media have routinely conspired in favour
of austerity measures and have been overall uncritical toward the state and the
banking system, which in turn has supported them and their enterprises through
public projects and advertising. At the same time, disenchantment
of the public towards media has grown, as indicated by falling viewing
rates. 

Such
circumstances are unfavourable to objective and investigative journalism.
Dealings between entrepreneurial interests (including banking ones) and the
state can take many shapes and forms, including often using legislation to
accommodate particular business interests. When exposed by alternative media
these affairs generate confrontation between the individuals whose interests
have been revealed (entrepreneurs and politicians) and the journalists involved.
The non-mainstream magazines Unfollow and HotDoc,
for example, have been on the receiving end of many lawsuits for exposing
scandals. Other practices against independent journalist have included: false
claims, direct threats against journalists’ personal and family life,
conspiracy, forgery, secret surveillance, or stealing of sensitive data.

Austerity has led to the closure of several
media outlets and has added to the pressure on journalists in many ways:
self-censorship so as to safeguard their jobs, low-status work conditions and
very low salaries, and increased editorial control and censorship of critical
views on governmental policies. The rise of internet news media, though providing
prospects for alternative expression, in actual fact have replicated the
dominance of big conglomerates, have reproduced cheap content and have provided
a space of unregulated working environments with poor conditions and abusive
employer practices.

The ERT closure and the digitalization process

The
abrupt closure of the public broadcaster ERT in 2013 further damaged pluralism
in Greek journalism, for ERT was the only broadcaster – in a market dominated by unlicensed commercial
channels – with a legal obligation to provide objective, unbiased news. In
addition, and notwithstanding its organisational problems and malfunctions, ERT
had a diverse program and a wide audience, both in Greece and
abroad. The shutdown
contributed to a deteriorating landscape regarding the overall quality of
journalistic independence. The dismissal of some 2,700 permanent and 300
temporary employees with no prior consultation has forced them into
unemployment or to seek work in private media under uncertain conditions. ERT’s
replacement, NERIT, was criticized for not functioning as an independent public
broadcaster.

The
ERT shutdown also left the development of digital terrestrial television (DTT)
to the large private media operators, with further consequences for pluralism
and democracy. In the
last five years, the Digea consortium, controlled by the private national
television channels, has established itself as the sole provider of DTT through
the manipulation of the conditions of the relevant auction for the allocation
of digital frequencies. Digea controls the digital terrain and its monopoly
raises concerns about pluralism and independent journalism under austerity
conditions, for the visibility of anti-austerity opinion on its frequencies is
expected to be limited.

Prospects for independent journalism

If the media landscape under austerity
creates bleak conditions for media freedom and for journalists to earn a
livelihood, then a post-austerity agenda could restart the economy and have a
positive impact on employment circumstances for journalists. The
newly elected (in January 2015) left-wing majority (SYRIZA) government in Greece has
pledged to introduce legislation that will address the long-standing problems
highlighted in this report. The
materialisation of the pledges of the new government to conduct a competition
for granting legal licenses to private channels could contribute to a redrawing
of the media landscape. Most importantly, the new government reopened ERT in June 2015; the
restoration of ERT as the national public
broadcaster is expected to contribute to cultural diversity and
political pluralism. But the public broadcaster should enjoy financial and
editorial independence in order to serve the public interest. Regulatory authorities that function more
independently will be crucial in this regard.

These efforts are likely to create an environment that protects
journalists and their independence as the country strives to tackle the
corruption and systemic failures that led to the economic, social, and
political crisis. Furthermore,
self-organized groups and networks of journalists and other media personnel
have started exploring new models of journalism. Prominent examples are the
Editors’ Newspaper (EfSyn), the magazine Unfollow,
and the online Press Project outlet. Greater mobilization by civil society, involving
trade unions and universities among others, is needed to promote pluralism,
transparency, and objective journalism. Links with inter-governmental
organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the EU, as well as with
international organizations, will be pivotal.

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